"...Basically," he concluded, "no matter how much you pray, they won't cut your term down. That's how you'll finish it, day by day."
"That's not something you should even pray for!" Alyoshka said in horror, "What's freedom to you? The last of your faith will overgrow with thorns when you're free! You should be happy to be in jail! Here, you've got time to think about your soul! The Apostle Paul said: 'What mean ye to weep and to break mine heart? for I am ready not to be bound only, but also to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus!'"
Shukhov stared at the ceiling in silence. He didn't know anymore if he even wanted freedom or not. In the beginning, he wanted it so much--counted, every evening, how many days had passed, how many were left. And then he got tired of it. And then it started to become clear that people like him wouldn't be sent home, they'd just be sent into exile. It wasn't even certain where the living would be better, here or there.
All he wanted to ask of God was to go home.
But they wouldn't let him go home...
- Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, One Day for Ivan Denisovitch
When Solzh died a few weeks ago, oh how the Anglophone literati tsk-tsked and ruefully shook their heads! You see, he was good when he was attacking the Soviet system. But when it turned out he was of a different moral-political cast from these Last Men, that was good enough evidence that he had outlived his usefulness. You can wring your hands over the Prague Spring, you can vote Democrat for the White House, you can meaninglessly root for a "managed capitalism"--that's what they have in Sweden, and oh, in Canada, doncha know. But if you disagree with these pious chatterers, this degenerated intelligentsia, it's an offended sniff and a wave of the hand for you.
Solzhenitsyn knew better than anyone that Soviet life was one big gulag--"bolshaya zona," one big [maximum security] zone. He knew it like those innocent Ken Keseys of the utopian '60s knew that, man, it's like we're all in a big insane asylum, man. What he did not know was how to be as sure as they were that you could break out, with drugs or with the overwhelming force of your individuality, wow! It seemed so easy for them--you paint a bus, you eat some cactus, and you're well on your way to leaving Civilization for Eros. It was this attitude--the facile freedom of the thrill-seeking bourgeois--that morphed into contemporary politics, the blandest possible affirmation masquerading as incisive critique. It is not the predictable viewpoints that offend, the endlessly repeated condemnations, the half-hearted recriminations. It is the delusion of having achieved some kind of liberation after all.
No, Solzh didn't stand for that. The system was inside him, it was inside us, and even our attempts to free ourselves are just the internalized dictates of that system. But still, there is the matter of your soul--think on 't: it's the best you can do. Within total powerlessness, even within the rejection of the flabbiest postmodernist "resistance," there is an inviolable sphere of contemplation. When the vita activa no longer carries any moral force, the hermetic monadism of a vita contemplativa finally emerges as a real alternative. "Freedom"--the Big Zone--is just a distraction, a make-believe place to exercise your make-believe ability to act.
The achievement of total serenity is predicated on the abandonment of Happiness and even of eudaimonia. Ivan Denisovitch had a good day: he scored some tobacco, didn't go to solitary, did fine work. Happiness, the striving for the best against the good (mere contentment), would have killed him--he would have gone on counting the days he had left. But no, he let himself be broken, ceased to believe he had control of his own fate, which is not only the sole possibility of survival but also the sole possibility of security.
It's when you're released that the trouble starts: you start thinking politics can matter, the activa shudders back to life, you are distracted by Happiness from the only truth of contentment. And then you degenerate: you compromise with the activa, you lower your utopian sights just a bit, you start thinking Barack Obama can redeem you. There is no way back from here, only further self-delusion--and the resentful sense of revulsion against anyone who hasn't equally sold out. Solzhenitsyn's conservatism, Orthodoxy, nationalism are the marks of an ideological enemy who must be opposed because it matters so much what you believe. You can no longer just listen, with Shukhov, staring at the ceiling, thinking about your soul.